Big Science – Poor Data?

The big global problems of our time are climate change, human population growth, and migration. From these emerge all the others that worry us from inequality leading to poverty, regional wars, emerging diseases, and biodiversity loss. As ecologists we typically worry about climate change and biodiversity loss. We can do little directly about climate change except to change our life style and replace our do-nothing-politicians. We can have some effect on biodiversity conservation, a subject of later discussions. But the elephant in the room is always climate change, and Bill McKibben (2019) has presented us with a synopsis of a positive evaluation from the viewpoint of fossil fuels and is currently bringing out a book on these issues (McKibben 2019a).

There is much discussion of these articles in reviews such as Diamond (2019) and in the social media. The negative concerns for the future have in recent years been getting more press than the positive possibilities and these negative views may cause the public to give up and say all efforts are hopeless. But these three references from McKibben and Diamond push the possibility of a positive outcome, premised partly on the growing concern of humans to the effects of climate change and the emerging technologies in energy capture that do not depend on oil and gas. I do not wish to question these statements but rather to raise the question of where ecological scientists should fit into this picture.

If natural capital is in decline and some to many species are at risk of extinction, what should be the reaction of a young ecologist just starting their ecological career? I can see two extreme responses to the current situation. One I will call the Carry-on-Regardless approach, and the other the Mad Panic approach. The Carry-on Regardless approach believes that we as one or a few scientists have little ability to change the global paradigm of environmental destruction. Certainly, we will use our own efforts to educate and give good environmental example to all we encounter. But as a scientist the most important achievement one can make is to do good ecological science, to understand in some small way how populations and communities of organisms interact and sustain themselves at the present time. In this way we can hopefully solve some immediate practical problems but more importantly collect some critical data for the next generations of ecologists to use in understanding the changes that will go on during the next several centuries. In a simple manner, future ecologists will be able to say, ‘so this is how system X was working in 2020”. We have no way to know now how much our hard-earned knowledge will be useful to our great-grandchildren, but we press on in the hope that it will be of some help in understanding the trace of the human footprint down the ages.

The Mad Panic approach at the other extreme argues that you should stop all the research that you are doing and become an advocate to try to convince the world to change course and prevent disaster. There is no time to do research, we ought to be out there shouting from the rooftops. If you wish to work at the research end of this school of thought you should perhaps be looking for an ecological disaster (e.g. plastics in the ocean) that you can investigate to beat politicians over the head about how we must change now to prevent further disaster. There is certainly a need for this sort of action.

The problem is how to advise ecologists starting their careers. There is no simple answer, and some are better at the first approach and others at the second. The key point is that we need both, and my concern (being a Carry-on phenotype) is that we need to have clear and precise data of how the planet is changing as a prerequisite for the second approach. We do not have this now except for a few species in a few locations. We have very little long-term data on biodiversity, and we only kid ourselves if we decide that a 3-year study can be classified as a long-term study, or that a list of species in a given area tells us something about ecosystem function. Consider how long it has taken to show clear trends in climate data, or in a more news-worthy area how little economic understanding has emerged from all the detailed minute-by-minute data on the stock market over the last 70 years.

So, we end up with big questions and poor data, and somehow hope that we can model the future changes in the world’s ecosystems to give the public guidance. To achieve this goal, we need more Carry-on Regardless ecologists doing good work and fewer, less strident Mad Panic environmentalists. Environmental warning bells are certainly going off, and we should listen to them and try to gather the data necessary to understand what is happening and how good management might counter negative environmental trends. It is good to be optimistic, but we must couple our optimism with strong ecological studies to understand how communities and ecosystems function. And we are a long way from having enough of these basic studies to be confident of future projections to guide the next generations.

Diamond, Jared. 2019. Striking a balance between fear and hope on climate change. New York Times, 15 April 2019.

McKibben, Bill. 2019. A Future Without Fossil Fuels? New York Review of Books, April 4, 2019, pp.

McKibben, Bill. 2019a. Falter: Has the Hunan Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Henry Holt and Company, 291 pp. ISBN:13: 9781250178268

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